Since the era of 19th century robber barons, creators of great wealth have built or rehabilitated their public image through the practice of philanthropy. As company builders, they generally channeled their giving into very visible community institutions—schools, hospitals, libraries—often with their names attached. Big wealth led to big public philanthropy in an attempt to show their public spirit. This was mainly a male endeavor as wealth was controlled by men, and their wives were rarely involved though frequently commemorated.
In the 21st century, however, public philanthropy began to change in significant ways. Donations that celebrated the donor were now questioned, and a growing emphasis was placed on how philanthropy could address and transform deep social inequities. Donors began to work together more actively as partners, and they extended their contributions outside of their home communities. At the same time, women have become more associated with philanthropy, seeking to support societal and environmental ventures that affect communities in need. Less visible than the male philanthropists who preceded them, these women want the success of their efforts to speak for them and their aspirations.
Two women who have recently emerged as major examples of this shift are Melinda French Gates and MacKenzie Scott (formerly Bezos). These Seattle neighbors are not wealth creators themselves, but they married two of the wealthiest men in history. Their entry into philanthropy began with their personal search for identity while connected to world-renowned founders of huge tech companies. And while their struggles echoed the experiences of many affluent professional women, the scope of their impact and the public nature of their evolution stand out and illustrate how their journeys led them to a different way of giving.
Entering their 50s and seeing their children off to college, Melinda and MacKenzie each left their long-term marriage and became a philanthropic giant in their own unique way. Both of these women gained great fortune and recognition when their husbands created two of the largest and most influential companies in the world. Nonetheless, they very likely would have been highly successful on their own. Melinda graduated from Duke with a BA and a MBA, while MacKenzie, who graduated from Princeton, was an aspiring novelist who studied with Toni Morrison. Melinda joined Microsoft and was a fast-tracking young executive there by the time she met Bill. MacKenzie was writing her first novel, which eventually won an American Book Award, and was making ends meet by working at a hedge fund, where she met and fell in love with her future husband—another Princeton grad, whom she married when she was 23. Melinda stopped working when she had the first of three children, but MacKenzie continued writing while raising three sons and a daughter.
While the degree of their husbands’ success was immense, some of the challenges these women faced were similar to those of many high-achieving professionals. Marriages of highly successful professionals follow a few common pathways. Some couples adapt complementary or distinct roles, and each person thrives in their own way. The spouses of the super-successful most often do not continue at a job, but instead become involved in the community and philanthropy, often embedding themselves in their husband’s projects. Such was the case with Melinda Gates. After Bill was criticized for his lack of charitable giving, he helped create and was an original signer of the Giving Pledge—a public commitment to give away most of one’s wealth—and set up his eponymous foundation with Melinda. Gradually, and with increased efforts on Melinda’s part, they began to be perceived as full partners in their giving.
Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos moved in a different direction. As he built Amazon, she wrote several successful novels and raised their children. Jeff did not sign the giving pledge and, other than a few joint pledges with MacKenzie, he was not known for his philanthropy.
Marriages of the rich and famous are very public, and many do not last forever. The past years have seen the end of these two marriages, but despite the publicity, we can only speculate about what happened. The Bezoses’ split was accompanied by Jeff’s public affair, and since then, MacKenzie quietly remarried. The Gateses’ divorce has also drawn public attention and has led to unflattering publicity about Bill’s behavior. But the tensions in such marriages can arise from deeper, less personal roots. However successful and involved the wife is, the couple’s wealth and renown are usually credited to the wealth creator. Thus, while Bill and Melinda created their foundation together—joined by their fellow board member Warren Buffett—and developed the Giving Pledge in 2010, Bill was the public face of the foundation leadership. Its culture and policies reflected his style and preferences. Generally, the public behavior of the wealth creator also sets limits and can lead to criticism or dismissal of the wife’s sincerity and choices. As wives they are perceived as not quite legitimate as donors; after all, it wasn’t “their” money.
Stories about the Gates divorce reveal that there was contention concerning Bill’s involvement with the family and household tasks (yes, billionaire families can and do argue about who does what around the house). At the same time, Melinda was always questioning who she was in their marriage and how to regain her voice. These conflicts spilled into their foundation as their views diverged on what it should do and how it should do it. Reflecting this divergence, Melinda had her office and wing of the foundation, and Bill had his. In her 2019 book, The Moment of Lift, she talked about her efforts to make her voice heard and effective. For example, Bill always signed the annual letter from the foundation, but in 2013, Melinda wanted to co-sign it and added some of her own views. It was a huge conflict that ended with him signing the letter while Melinda added a supplementary article. The foundation was no longer a partnership but had become an area of contention, and Melinda began to consider leaving the marriage.
The Bezos split was initiated by Jeff, but it is also clear that MacKenzie was moving in a different direction and was ready to go off on her own path. She had very different views about the importance and role of giving, and as a reflection of that, she signed the Giving Pledge soon after their divorce. Everyone who signs the pledge writes a letter telling why they are doing so, and MacKenzie’s letter was especially passionate and humble:
I have no doubt that tremendous value comes when people act quickly on the impulse to give. No drive has more positive ripple effects than the desire to be of service. There are lots of resources each of us can pull from our safes to share with others—time, attention, knowledge, patience, creativity, talent, effort, humor, compassion. And sure enough, something greater rises up every time we give: the easy breathing of a friend we sit with when we had other plans, the relief on our child’s face when we share the story of our own mistake, laughter at the well-timed joke we tell someone who is crying, the excitement of the kids in the school we send books to, the safety of the families who sleep in the shelters we fund. These immediate results are only the beginning. Their value keeps multiplying and spreading in ways we may never know.
We each come by the gifts we have to offer by an infinite series of influences and lucky breaks we can never fully understand. In addition to whatever assets life has nurtured in me, I have a disproportionate amount of money to share. My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.
MacKenzie’s entry into philanthropy this year was highly impactful but in her own low-key way. Without any formal structure or foundation, she and a team of advisors researched groups that were doing important work related to inequality, social justice, education and the environment in relation to women and persons of color. After identifying and looking at a multitude of efforts, they reached out to hundreds of groups, offering them substantial grants with no strings attached. Unlike foundations that asked for extensive applications and conducted site visits and interviews before funding a few lucky applicants, she and her new husband quietly gave away billions of dollars. By not asking the recipients to fill out applications or be interviewed, they let the work of each group stand for itself without adding extra costs to satisfy the givers. Most importantly, the focus was on the groups, not on MacKenzie, who recently gave grants to another 286 non-profit organizations, bringing the total of her donations to more than $8B. And with her net worth estimated at more than $60B, there is good reason to believe that many more groups will benefit from her support.
In a similarly independent fashion, Melinda, while remaining part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, branched out in 2015 by founding her own effort, Pivotal Ventures, that reflects and helps fulfill her compassionate objectives. Its web site explains:
Pivotal Ventures is an investment and incubation company created by Melinda French Gates to advance social progress in the United States, enabling better lives for more people.
We believe that every individual should have an equal opportunity to improve their life and the lives of others. Equality is a precondition for social progress, but equality alone is not enough. While everyone may one day have the same access to opportunities, many will continue to confront political, cultural and institutional obstacles simply because of who they are. We envision a world where all individuals have a chance to contribute, participate, and live a better life. Which is why we’re pushing for a more equitable country—one that works for everyone, equally, because at Pivotal, we believe removing the barriers that hold people back improves life for all.
We support partners advancing progress for women and families in the United States. Our strategies are guided by data, experts and those with lived experience in our focus areas. We use both philanthropic and investment capital to fund transformational ideas, people and organizations.
At this time, Melinda remains as a co-chair and trustee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but it is possible that Pivotal will become the main focus of her philanthropic efforts, especially as Bill’s personal behavior has undermined his social values.
The complementary roles of men and women with huge wealth is often expressed through their different approaches to philanthropy. “If you look at the motivations for the way women engage in philanthropy versus the ways that men engage in philanthropy, there’s much more ego involved in the man, it’s much more transactional, it’s much more status driven,” notes Debra Mesch, a professor at the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University, in Nicholas Kulish’s article “Giving Billions Fast” in the New York Times (December 20, 2020). “Women don’t like to splash their names on buildings, in general.”
At the same time, “women are increasingly the primary decision maker around finances and philanthropy,” says Susan Winer, the co-founder of Strategic Philanthropy, an advisory firm. “They bring a completely different mindset—they want to know, not just give. This is a big difference, being an active partner their efforts rather than just being recognized for giving money. This tends to be a difference between men and women. Women are more process-oriented, care more, express more empathy. For this reason, women have historically been more involved than their husbands or fathers in philanthropy. They are involved more actively, but people do not necessarily see it. Also, they are strong people who have chosen to demonstrate what they care about through who they give to, stepping out from husbands.”
Both Melinda French Gates and MacKenzie Scott have embarked on new paths of giving, moving in a very different direction than that of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos—and of the earlier generation of robber barons. They came to their approach as part of their personal development. And it is likely that being able to work on their own has strengthened their ability to donate their fortunes in ways that reflect their views of what is most needed and how their great gifts can be best shared with the world. Freed from having to react to the larger-than-life influence of their former husbands, they have each embraced an emerging new style of philanthropy. Stay tuned to see how their experiments evolve.